Sunday, January 26, 2014

Cycling and Hartford Part I

In a departure from the junk I usually write about cold feet, some slight by a faceless driver or comparisons of eggs and pedals we will feature some guest posts by Dario about cycling and the history of Hartford. One may not think about Hartford's rich cycling past when riding around these days because it's been obscured and generally erased by years of pro-car planning choices and neglect. So, read what Dario has written and either get depressed about once was or hopeful that our city can rejoin its past and have roads dominated by people and not machines.

Cycling and Hartford: Introduction

As everyone knows, Hartford was once renowned for its manufacturing and not only for its insurance companies. I've dipped into a few books about cycling and about Hartford during the late 19th and early 20th C and they got me thinking. Cycling was all the craze because human-powered locomotion was exciting, and man had never gone so fast. Cyclists were even beating horses in races. The craze fizzled quickly however, lasting only about 15-20 years (ca. 1880-1900), with the development of gas engine vehicles, the car in the early 20th C, and then, of course, with the Wright Bros. flying invention. Cycling enjoyed its heyday, like Hartford (although the city's fortunes began long before and lasted long after). And then it was over! It's fascinating and also a little sad. We have come to accept the excuse that cities everywhere have their great moments and then they decline, whether it's the small northeastern manufacturing town or the sprawling industrial cities of the Midwest. Cities are places where people make lots of money.

Take Albert Pope, for example. The bicycle and then auto entrepreneur-magnate did much to help Hartford. He was in it for profit, too, of course. But he also had a sense of people and of the place. When the capitalist winds shift (that is, industries come and go), cities' fortunes often shift with them, and the same occurred in Hartford to a great degree. In the next several "posts", I want to briefly reflect on why cities change. And I also want to reflect on cycling, too. But I also want to reflect on memory and time in terms of cycling, the city of Hartford, and the prospects of sustainability. That's a lot. And it will be confused. But, hopefully, it will also be a little interesting.

Cycling and Hartford: Pt. I: "Why cities change?"

Cities change because they are living organisms. When we first think of cities, we think of buildings, roads, commerce, finance, entertainment. Cities are places of exchange and intense interactions between and among people. But unlike their inhabitants, cities typically have a longer, much longer, life cycle. But they, too, eventually exhibit similar life patterns, without necessarily dying off completely. It would be far too easy, therefore, to apply biological necessity to cities in order to explain why they change and decay, something along the line of, "cities must also die in order to be reborn and to thrive again." (This is true in the animal kingdom in order to perpetuate the species, but not of the places and structures created by animals. Animals and humans tend to exploit their environment and then move on. Cities do have economic ups and downs.) But there is no guarantee that once fallen they will rise again. When it comes to cities, we human beings have adopted a scorched earth policy throughout history. When cities die, they do so not because they die a necessary, natural death, but because people kill them off with the choices they make. Why do some cities, great cities continue to thrive, whereas others suffer virtual, if not real, deaths, like what seems to be taking place in Detroit? 

Urbanists and economists can explain the mechanics of a city's decline. The anthropological explanation of why major cities continue to do well, change, adapt, is because the different generations of inhabitants, whatever their own values and cultures, are personally invested in the city. They make it work. Cities die as the result of lost income (again, bankrupt Detroit) apparently, but because those with money (and not only the very wealthy) don't really care, despite the rhetoric. Otherwise, why would important corporations, for example, that are essential to the life of a given city up and leave. A city's sustainability requires a population that is invested in it. One reason why Hartford, despite its woes, is still "on the map" is because the city's longstanding institutions are still heavily invested in it, meaning, that they can't just get up and move out, like companies that move production elsewhere. It's a relatively small city with a rich legacy of cultural and educational institutions and important industries. Yet being a relatively small city with a dwindling tax base, Hartford faces significant challenges. The possibility of moving to a regional tax base to support Hartford's infrastructure is highly unlikely, although it would be the "right thing" to do economically and morally (because many people work in Hartford, but live in the wealthier neighboring suburbs). It would make the city more sustainable in transportation planning, too, for example. 

Only in recent decades do we care about the concept of sustainability and how it relates to urban areas. When resources were considered infinite (perhaps up through the 19th C and before the energy crises of the 20th C drove the point home about the limited fossil fuels), we could view cities as if they were like consumer goods, destined to be obsolete. But not anymore. Hartford, for example, has changed dramatically, from one of the great manufacturing centers to an impoverished city (albeit with lots of resources still). Hartford had and has everything going for it in terms of geography, access to important technologies and education, and an extensive infrastructure that serves not only its inhabitants, but also the many people that come in from the suburbs to work there. So, what is its problem?
Stay tuned for Part II

1 comment:

Tony C said...

Dario - Excited to read the rest and hopefully have some folks chime in with history tidbits and responses to your posts.